IT REACHED FULL-BORE AUSTIN angst in one blinding flash. The date was July 19, 2006, and Richard Suttle Jr., a lawyer who represents some of the city’s most powerful developers, had slipped in among the luncheon crowd at Las Manitas, Austin’s favorite little downtown Mexican restaurant. Las Manitas is on Congress Avenue, across from Suttle’s high-rise office, and he frequently lunches there, as do many power brokers, politicians, musicians, writers, cops, and construction workers. Except on this particular day Suttle’s mission was more delicate than simply devouring a platter of enchiladas zacatecanas. He had come to inform Cynthia and Lidia Pérez, the sisters who own Las Manitas, that his client, a megadeveloper named White Lodging Services Corporation, planned to demolish their restaurant and their school and day care center next door, Escuelita del Alma, and replace them with a huge hotel complex run by Marriott International.
Suttle’s message didn’t come as a complete surprise: The sisters had known for at least eight years that their landlord, Tim Finley, would eventually develop this block between Second and Third streets. Presented with an opportunity for ambush, however, Cynthia couldn’t resist. In a voice that rattled the pots and pans and could be heard at least as far away as city hall, she announced to the diners: “Ladies and gentlemen, this is the lawyer who represents the white guys who plan to bulldoze Las Manitas!” The juxtaposition of the words “lawyer” and “white guys” produced a silence so deafening that hardly anyone heard Suttle mumble that he was also hoping to get a taco.
The battle lines quickly formed. After White Lodging acquired a long-term lease on the property from Finley’s company, Cynthia and Lidia and Dina Flores, who runs the school, met with Suttle and told him that they would need their leases, which were due to expire in December, extended at least through August 2007, when the school year would end. Though the sisters had little legal leverage against the powerful developers, they did hold one significant card: They own the historic building a few doors down from Las Manitas at the corner of Third and Congress, and thus they retain rights to the use of the alley that runs through the center of the block. In order for White Lodging to carry out its massive development plan, which would entail converting the alley to building space, it would need the Perezes to relinquish these rights and grant an alley vacation. Hoping to secure such a deal, White Lodging agreed to extend the lease and even sweetened the offer with a year’s free rent, but it stipulated a clause that alarmed the sisters: an option to terminate the agreement in thirty days if the city jeopardized or delayed the project in any way. Having determined that they would need more time to sort out a relocation plan, and under considerable pressure from Suttle to accept the proposal containing the termination clause, the sisters hardened their position. “We find the offer from your client to be insufficient, unreasonable, and unacceptable,” they wrote to Suttle, two days before presenting their counteroffer: a lease extension through June 2008 and preferably a guarantee that they could stay there permanently.
“Frankly, we didn’t know what to make of their counter,” Suttle told me. “We’d given them what they asked for, an extension through the summer of ’07, and even that was a stretch. Plus we had thrown in a year’s free rent. And then they came back with how sorry our offer was and demanded another year.” The corporation never bothered to respond to the sisters’ offer, which only fueled their sense of outrage and betrayal. As talks stalled, acrimony traveled familiar paths. A signboard appeared outside Las Manitas’s front door inviting passersby to list the top ten reasons the developers should go away and rot in hell. Virtually overnight, people who had never eaten at or even heard of Las Manitas began speaking of it as part of their cultural heritage. Some claimed that the stakes were nothing less than the city’s egalitarian soul.
Non-Austinites could be forgiven for not understanding all the fuss. To their eyes, Las Manitas may seem no more than a funky little eatery, one of those places where customers willingly pass through the kitchen to reach the patio—and the restroom; where the food is good, not great; where a typical luncheon check is under $8. But like Rick’s in Casablanca, Las Manitas is the spot where everyone goes, the community gathering place that is far more than the sum of its chips and salsa. The sisters encourage their kitchen help to learn English and go to college. Tejano music legend Ruben Ramos began as a Las Manitas dishwasher; all-star groups of Tex-Mex musicians like Freddy Fender and Los Lobos have played on the cramped patio; waiters wear T-shirts emblazoned with the crest of “The University of Rice & Beans.” The walls are covered with newspaper and magazine articles about the restaurant (including several from Texas Monthly ) and photos of celebrities who have eaten there. Two altars occupy the back patio, one dedicated to the Virgin of Guadalupe, the other to the late governor Ann Richards, who is memorialized with an arrangement of photographs, sugar skulls, candles, dried flowers, and Corona bottles.
When Las Manitas first opened, in 1981, lower Congress was skid row, a place where people dumped their refuse and the noon train stopped traffic. A quarter of a century later the area appears destined to become a place where only the very wealthy can do business, the result of the city’s crusade to check suburban sprawl by encouraging high-density development downtown. The plan is working. Where tumbledown warehouses once festered, people today drift along tree-lined sidewalks past wine and coffee bars, classy restaurants, interesting boutiques, and twinkling lights.
Not surprisingly, these changes have been met with some resistance. The battle cry “Keep Austin Weird” can now be seen on T-shirts and bumper stickers all over town.